Authors: Stephen Benatar
Father of the Man
For the late Dr Howard Gotlieb
of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center
at Boston University, Massachusetts—
in memory of all his kindness, generosity,
Father of the Man
The shop had been there, near the British Museum, since 1867. On the outside it still advertised, in painted lettering at the top of each window, such wares as swordsticks and dagger canes and tropical sunshades. The present day was more prosaic. Mrs Whittaker-Payne had bought only a folding black umbrella.
Roger held the door open.
“As usual, such lovely service,” she said. She was white-haired and patrician. Her gloved hand bunched arthritically round the silver crook of a rosewood stick. Her voice was resonant with a belief in herself and everything she stood for. “I shall see you in a month or so,” she told him, “when I return to buy Christmas presents.”
He felt tempted not to mention it. “In fact, madam, I’m leaving at the end of next week.”
At first she didn’t hear.
“Why? You struck me as being so happy in your work.”
“I am. But some time ago we had to move to Nottingham.”
She stared at him. “You can’t possibly mean that you travel down from Nottingham each day?”
“Are you married?”
“No. I’m living with my parents.”
“Then surely you could rent yourself a room or flat in town?”
“I did for a bit but…” He paused. “I really didn’t like it.”
“How old are you, young man?”
“Well, I suppose you know what suits you best. In my day, young men of twenty-four no longer lived with their parents. I wish you luck, of course. I wish you every success.” For a few seconds he watched her walk haltingly towards the traffic lights; her chauffeur, he knew, was parked around the corner. He’d wondered if he ought to escort her. Instead, though, he slowly closed the door and turned to where Rose was sitting, watching him sardonically. Mrs Whittaker-Payne had been their only customer for at least a quarter of an hour.
“Mrs Whittaker-Payne-in-the-Bum,” remarked Rose. “Mr Roger Mild. Funny how people’s names sometimes fit. Made me feel quite sick to see you sucking up to her!”
Rose was round-faced with a short haircut: bleached streaks amongst the natural brown. She looked neat in white blouse and black skirt yet had a tendency to dumpiness which a dress might better have disguised. Roger often thought her sharp-tongued but there were times when she could be unexpectedly generous.
“Why’s she a pain in the bum?” He sat down next to her, on one of the upright cane-seated chairs. These were mainly intended for the customers but in the afternoon if trade were slack the assistants were permitted to use them. “And I wasn’t sucking up to her,” he added.
“Here! That’s enough of that language if you please!” Running the length of the shop was a gallery from which the manager, seated at his desk, could survey nearly everything that went on. Thus had the founder of the firm kept himself informed of how business was progressing and been instantly aware of when the more distinguished of his customers set foot across the threshold: Mr Gladstone, maybe—Lord Shaftesbury—Sir Arthur Sullivan. Thus did Mr Alan Cavendish also keep himself
. “Pain in the bum! Sucking up! I can’t believe I’m hearing such low-class expressions from the staff of this establishment!” Mr Cavendish rose to his feet and glared. “I thought I always made it abundantly clear: those were the prerogative of the management.”
“Yes, you tell him, Mr Cavendish. Did you hear him just now? All but holding out his hand for the tip he was!”
“And so might I have been…if I’d considered it would work.” Mr Cavendish was approaching fifty; tall—not quite so tall as Roger—pleasant-looking and bald. Like each of his male assistants he wore a suit. “It’s plain you’re going to miss him when he’s gone,” he said to Rose. He rubbed his forehead a little. “Anyway, I suppose it’s nice that somebody is,” he added mournfully.
On Sunday afternoon Roger’s father invited him for a walk in the park to exercise Polly, their young cocker spaniel. But Roger, who was ensconced in one of the fireside chairs in the small dining room, flipping through a magazine and chatting with his mum, answered apologetically. He said there were things he needed to get on with. Ephraim Mild called him, lightly, a rotten so-and-so but otherwise concealed his disappointment. Collecting a handful of nuts in case he saw some squirrels, and shoving it into a pocket of his duffel coat, he left the house with a fairly jaunty “See you!” and an animated bit of conversation with the dog. He was feeling vulnerable; on the verge, he feared, of a depression, the first in about three months. Vulnerable, because he was jealous of his wife and hurt by the indifference of his children; also by the indifference of his wife—or by what he now perceived as such.
Two facts, closely related, had been edging him towards the pit. Last Friday his daughter, who lived with her boyfriend in Brussels, had returned there after a short holiday at home. On departure (Ephraim had cancelled an appointment at the office to be sure of getting to the station in time) his wife had received a warm hug and a kiss—“I’m really going to miss you, Mum!”—but he’d been given only a bright smile and a wave and when he’d moved forward with a
Hey, what about me?
had gained merely an impatient
and a meaningless brush on the cheek.
He couldn’t understand it: there hadn’t been any conflict—not unless you put under that heading his insufficiently suppressed agitation at a call to Brussels lasting practically two hours. And admittedly Abigail had often been undemonstrative towards him when she’d been younger, but he’d supposed she had got over that by now; admittedly, too, she could on this occasion have been a shade preoccupied with guarding her luggage and her seat. Yet this hadn’t drained the warmth out of her parting from Jean. “I’m really going to miss you, Mum!”
And then, yesterday morning, following so closely on this initial blow (and you could see how self-pitying was the word ‘blow’, how quick he was to assume the role of someone wronged)—okay, then, following so closely on this initial
, there had come a news-filled letter from Oscar. Oscar, three years younger than Abigail and two years younger than Roger, was cycling through India at the present, sensibly making the most of his time between college and career to see as much of the world as he could. What had started as a bicycle tour round Europe with a friend—and already Ephraim had felt envious enough of this—had changed character in Budapest when the pair of them had been told, by young Australians, of an irresistibly cheap method of travelling into Asia and beyond. Perhaps the letter had been written with a wineglass at the writer’s side, although the flowery, humorous language was anyway typical of Oscar; as indeed would have been the wineglass.
“…But you do all know, of course, that my love and prayers are ever with you. Particularly, I must say, with my beloved mother, who inevitably receives a large portion of my thoughts here in Calcutta…Abby, my sweet. Are you still home in the bosom of your loving family? Did you somehow forget to answer my little jot, which I hope reached you in Brussels?…Rodge, old pal. Fares well the world of commerce? Do you still sell brollies to the rich and famous and make merry conversation with hardy travellers from across the globe?…Father, my ‘Great Man’. How is office life? I know how well you’ve managed to dodge and weave under the veil of your own overdrafts but will you be quite so astute with someone’s account that’s actually in the black? ‘You’ve still got a little nest egg? Why come to me? Go home and be happy!’ Write and let me hear of all the bankruptcies and people jumping out of penthouse windows…And darling Mother. Still holding the family together? The linchpin and the cornerstone? Blessed, sweet and unappreciated?”…and so on and so on, for this had come very close to the beginning—and might even have hinted at homesickness if any of the rest of it had. But no. Altogether it gave rise to little concern and was a source of much entertainment, enlightenment and speculation.
The ‘Great Man’, incidentally, referred to a three-year-old encounter of Ephraim’s on an afternoon of sightseeing in Rome, where he had spent two penurious and abortive weeks looking for employment. At the Coliseum he had shared both an umbrella and an interesting conversation with a middle-aged Austrian advising on a nearby engineering project. Georg, who lived in Vienna, still corresponded with him roughly twice a year and last June he and his wife had given Oscar and Rick several days of lavish hospitality—during which, apparently, the alcohol had flowed and during which, apparently, Georg had spoken of Ephraim as being a great man.
“He spoke to me with clear emotion in his eyes, explaining the difficulty of talking of a father to his son, yet managing to emphasize your ‘greatness’. ‘I think your father is a…
man (this ‘great’ did not merely have the tones of ‘fab’ or ‘brill’ but of ‘a leader of men’ and ‘newfound Messiah’). ‘He has great…how should I say…insight. He sees through the surface.’ I hope he didn’t take my wild laughter in the wrong way.”
How Georg had ever formed this opinion of him was as big a mystery to Ephraim as to everybody else; ‘imperfect grasp of English!’ was the predictable consensus. Ephraim remembered only that they had spent six hours together in the rain (“All the ingredients for a fine romance,” wrote Oscar), that he had felt debilitated from a lack of food and that he had spoken of his dreams and disappointments. Georg had spoken about
ambitions too, the principle one being to become an interpreter, and since, despite the occasional, charming wobble—“Dear Ephraim, you cannot imagine, or maybe you can, how a nice day it became after I received your letter. I read it in the tramway, standing amidst a lot of people and surely they got some radiation of friendlyness that escaped the envelope…”—since, despite the occasional charming wobble, this was a dream which Georg had realized, perhaps he then had proved to be the greater man. One thing, however, was certain. Ephraim had warmed enormously to Georg since learning of this radiation in the tramway or, with any luck, inside the tram itself, and had found it unaccustomedly easy to sit down and write a long letter to Vienna thanking him for his hospitality to Oscar. He really ought to nurture Georg, he had thought yesterday, somewhat listlessly, on having him brought back to mind. But at the same time he felt he wouldn’t ever again have the energy, or inclination, to nurture anyone; the bottom line, he believed at present, was that people were only truly concerned about themselves…a reflection, maybe, more upon his own egotistical state. He could remind himself that people had died under interrogation rather than imperil the lives of others; he could remind himself of this but at the moment couldn’t feel it. Nobody, other than a mother or a lover, genuinely cared deeply about anybody else: that should be the motto in this year’s Christmas cracker. The only unqualified constancy came from the likes of Polly.
He found it helped a bit to walk with Polly in the park.
This afternoon, though, he unfortunately saw no squirrels. But as always when he walked this way he lingered by the pond where the ducks and geese kept up their usual clamour; and stood for several minutes gazing at the birds in their cages opposite—he hoped that they were happy—the budgerigars with their powder-puff blues or yellows, the pheasants and parrots equally beautiful in their brilliant, multi-coloured plumage, the ordinary domestic hens which he perhaps liked best of all, reminding him as they did of a childhood holiday near Lincoln, when with such seriousness and wonder he’d picked his way into the centre of the coop, scattering the grain, and been allowed inside the henhouse to collect the eggs. These were mostly brown and mud-smeared, with a feather or a wisp of straw sticking to them—sometimes, even, a spot of blood—and he could still remember the distinctive smell of it all, occasionally catch it sharply, borne in on a double-edged wave of nostalgia, during those frequent moments that he loved to spend here by the cages in the Arboretum. When they’d first moved to Nottingham, indeed, he had briefly hoped they might themselves be able to keep a few hens in the back garden—and Jean would have liked that too—but it was impractical, had gone the way, she remarked bitterly, of all their other little fantasies (a smallholding in France had figured amongst these). Had said it ironically, maybe, rather than bitterly.
After a while he left the park and let Polly off the lead again, in the cemetery across the road. He moved slowly, without his usual springiness of step—a man of middling height, quite nicely built, who had once, many years before, won medals for his dancing and a cup for his jiu-jitsu. You would hardly have looked at him twice, except perhaps for his eyes, which were blue and somewhat unexpected below his darkish—now receding—hair. People said of his face that it was open and good-natured; but what the hell was that supposed to mean? Open? Was it, for instance, the face of a man who would be expected to enjoy a walk through the cemetery as much as a walk through the Arboretum? Normally he found a graveyard salutary—especially when, as this, it was a place of trees and winding paths and had the prospect of a distant spire.